Christchurch and its earthquakes

IMG_1885Christchurch. Third biggest city in New Zealand, just smaller than Wellington the capital. For those inclined towards using Geelong as a yard stick, and there are so many of us — twice as big. Capital itself of Canterbury the fertile plain where the lamb which fed Britain before its entry to the Common Market was raised. Dairy prices remain an important bellwether of community well being. IMG_1951Comfortable, dull, provincial, secure: the sort of place where you find an unusual number of private schools servicing the children of pastoralists and people clinging to traditions from elsewhere.

Chch has been described as the most English city outside England, and certainly at the opera we were surrounded by accents that began well back in the British throat. Salisbury, Gloucester, Worcester, Durham, Manchester and Hereford are street names in the central block. Ireland is represented by Armagh, Bangor, Tuam and Cashel; Wales by St Asaph; and the Empire, presumably, by Colombo, Montreal, Barbadoes (sic), Madras and Antigua. Hagley Park, 170 rather glorious hectares in the centre of the city could, by its plantings, style and usage, be Regent’s Park on the other side of the world.

83251448The architecture which provides the city with some of its more definable character is a localised version of Gothic using grey basalt highlighted with white trim. The Provincial Chambers and the old Canterbury University buildings which became an art centre are fine examples, although the jewel in the crown? The Anglican cathedral standing to attention at the side of the city square.ChristchurchCathedralTrams trundle round its heart, although on just one line and really only for tourists.

Tram at Christchurch Arts Centre, New Zealand

IMG_1905The Avon rises within the city  — at Avonhead: that’s Chch, prosaic but clear — a good deal less than a river but more than a trickle requiring eight bridges in the CBD alone. It ambles its way through the suburbs to the sea 10 k.s away as the brown trout swims.

One of Chch’s tourist offerings is to take to it by punt.

The Avon and the Heathcote, Chch’s other waterway, drain marshland depositing silt in the shallow estuary at their mouths.

IMG_1878A prosperous regional centre requires a deep water port and fortunately one exists 15 k.s south-east in the core of a volcanic crater. However the steep and rather intransigent Port Hills (the crater’s rim, from which the first photo above was taken and visible at right) separate the city from the port and its town, Lyttelton. A rail tunnel joined the two in 1867 but it wasn’t until 1964 that road traffic could avoid steep and winding climbs to get between Lyttelton and Chch. The road tunnel is 2 k.s long, bullet straight except for two wafty curves at beginning and end.

It wouldn’t do to talk Chch down. This is the home of the Crusaders. Played finals in 16 of 20 years of SuperRugby, winning the lot seven times. To the antipodean mind SuperRugby is the club world championship. The Crusaders offer big names, huge names: Dan Carter, Andrew Mehrtens, Justin Marshall, Kieren Reid aaaaannd Richie McCaw. International Player of the Year three times and now suiting up for his ninth consecutive year as captain of the All Blacks who have won 120 0f 136 international games in that time. He played the final of the last world cup with two stress fractures and a displaced screw in his right foot. ABs 8 France 7. If you think this doesn’t matter you haven’t been to New Zealand.
images-1 Richie and some of his closer friends.

imagesChch also has a very fine art gallery which opened in 2003. It was designed to cope with earthquakes, being built on a concrete raft intended to evenly distribute seismic mutterings.

We’ve been there and loved it,IMG_0195

and we have also found the groovy part of town down High Street south east from the city: vodka bars, good coffee, nice places to sit, interesting passing parade, amateur art and a shop where I bought my all time favourite shirt owned by a former All Black who had headed off into the rag trade. You’ll know the spot. Near the corgis.IMG_1835IMG_0201


And then you look up, and just behind where Gill is sitting, instead of a very nice place to have breakfast, there’s this…IMG_1829

•• •• •• ••

Signed ‘Fred Tunnecliffe, 2010’ and found in Freeman’s Restaurant, Lyttelton.

On 4 September 2010 4.35am a network of faults slid and yawned producing three major earthquakes almost simultaneously. Felt throughout New Zealand, the epicentre was 11 k.s under Charing Cross 40 k.s west of Chch. It was measured as being magnitude 7.1, equivalent to detonating more than five million tonnes of TNT. (For comparison the combined explosive force of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs was equivalent to the detonation of 33,000 tonnes of TNT.) This quake lasted 40 seconds — time it, add the noise and the very bizarre physical sensations, and tremble — and caused extensive damage to infrastructure. Power, sewerage and water supply were all seriously damaged. Many stone buildings heaved and cracked. 1,200 repairs to roads and traffic infrastructure were required mainly in the northern suburbs although following a diagonal line north-east south-west. Two people were injured, another died of a heart attack during the quake but it is not possible to assign it as the cause. Minor damage was reported from towns 400 k.s away. Subsequently four metres of sideways movement was measured between the two sides of this previously unknown fault.

nasa_largeNew Zealanders are used to earthquakes. These after all are the ‘shakey isles’. The Southern Alps which form the spine of the South Island are one of the most visible and active examples of plate tectonics in the world. If you place a ruler on the snow line of the western side of this picture you will have discovered the Alpine Fault which has ruptured dramatically four times in the last 900 years, most recently in 1717. It is here that the Pacific and Indo-Australian plates meet and try to climb over each other. Intriguingly, the two islands are predominantly on different tectonic plates. 

Since 2010 there have been 27 quakes measured at 5.3 or (generally) higher, big quakes, in the country as a whole. In Christchurch itself the spire has been shaken off the cathedral several times in the last 100 years. A month after it was built in 1881 a tremor dislodged several blocks of ashlar from near the apex. Seven years later eight metres of the spire came down. But 2010 was a brutal example. 

Despite long term interest and intensive study, this fault had not appeared on the seismological maps. It was hidden under gravels and greywacke. Chch is under the cloud on the right of the photo, not obviously near the major faultline. But once this one was uncovered, a whole network of faults ‘all pointing at Christchurch’ became evident. Residents were warned of the likelihood of aftershocks and expected them. (Since then there have been more than 12,000. Twelve thousand.) However by Christmas most of the damage had been sorted out, the city was working, and much of the emotional bleeding had been staunched.

So when on 22 February 2011, a shake began at lunchtime, 12.51pm, it could have been an aftershock. But it wasn’t. Although measured in one way at 6.3, in terms of intensity and impact (on the alternative Mercalli scale) it became the strongest shock ever recorded in an urban area. It was shallow (under the Port Hills). What was breaking was very strong geologically, releasing even more energy. The shock waves didn’t bounce around but moved in the same direction actually gathering strength. And in a development which had not been seen before, the top layers of ground under the city were flipped off those which were deeper like an unsynchronised bounce on a trampoline, the shock of resettling intensifying the impact. Thirteen minutes later there was an aftershock of 5.8; less than two hours later one of 5.9. For an hour the ground barely stopped shaking. During that time the Port Hills in places became 40cm higher.

Ninety percent of the 600 or so CBD buildings were destroyed or rendered unusable. 12,000 properties registered damage exceeding $100,000. The tremors cracked and brought down masonry buildings, brittle regardless of their footings. IMG_1825185 people died, the majority of them in two office buildings which folded into themselves like layers of pancake. Millefeuille. One memorial, 185 empty chairs, is at right.

The earlier quake had generated 1,200 road repair sites. This one had created 38,000 if you could be bothered counting. You could just say whole areas like the northern suburbs and the region that lies between the city and the coast were stuffed: Dallington, Bromley, Bexley, Brighton, Sumner, Woolston, Mt Pleasant. Because while the tremors destroyed buildings via shaking, they were also creative.

708541Some of the most memorable photos are of the consequences of liquefaction, apparently firm soil being shaken so that it becomes a tide of silty sand with characteristics of liquid. Whole houses sunk metres into this material. The Avon became a grey trough in hundreds of hectares of ‘flood’.

The earthquake-proof Art Gallery which survived the shaking and was used as a command centre during the early stages of the aftermath, was discovered to be sitting on liquified soil. The whole thing had tilted and become unstable. It has been jacked up (much of the engineering in action in Chch is astonishing) and it will be put on base isolators, but it is still out of commission. 322,000 tonnes of liquefaction silt have been removed. As a result of this experience substantial sections of the city may be declared out of bounds for building. Just think of the legal and financial ramifications of that.

Nearer the hills there were massive landslips. One chased down the steep hill immediately behind Redcliffs School threatening the infants’ block. A teacher at the school describes being bounced up and down, ‘a foot or more’, as she tried to stand in a doorway hanging onto the door posts eventually leaving deep finger nail marks in the wood, but powerless to get to her students to help them. Fortunately the children all escaped harm.

Stray boulders wreaked their own damage.315116-christchurch-lyttleton-earthquake One which had followed a trajectory like this was named ‘Rocky’ and sold on eBay for $60,000, a contribution to the recovery fund. So very New Zealand-ish.

IMG_1863Ballantyne’s department store (below) was one of the few CBD buildings to survive the quake and despite still being surrounded by space and remnant devastation it’s a going concern. Sometime after the quake while they were trying to retrieve some semblance of order in the shop, the manager provided free buses fitted out with champagne to take customers on day trips to the Ballantyne’s in Timaru 165k.s away.

And that’s the sort of thing that makes New Zealand one of the world’s great countries: make-do, can-do, will-do all at once, with a bit of good humour tossed in — all the qualities you need to live at the end of the earth. While the wooden roof trusses over the Wharenui pool were flexing 30 or 40 cms, the kids in the pool had to be forcibly persuaded to leave because they were enjoying the waves slopping over the sides so much.

•• •• •• ••

So in the hard flat winter light of 42 degrees south what does Chch look like now four and half years later?

It looks like shipping containers and chain link fencing. The containers play a role in propping up bits of heritage or serving as a basis for ‘Re-start’ the shopping centre on the edge of what was the CBD.

IMG_1831IMG_1887IMG_1844It looks like a demolition site.IMG_1912
IMG_1819You look at a building and think, ah good fortune. That one got away. And then you look a bit closer and there’s windows missing, there’s bracing along one or more walls, the signage is broken and some of the kilometres of chainlink fence that is still everywhere in the city is keeping you away from ground level nearby. Despite not being wrapped in plastic like most of them are, it’s waiting for demolition. This also applies if in a more complex way to heritage buildings. The cathedral will not be saved in anything like recognisable form but the old Arts Centre might be.IMG_1856







It looks like a construction site.


If you want a job and know anything about construction, I would consider relocating to Chch. I think I read in the paper that 4000 skilled and semi-skilled Filipino workers had been brought in to work on repairs and new projects. Certainly wherever you look, in the city, in the suburbs, out of town, building is in train. But decades of work remain. I suppose until the money runs out. The Wallabies won’t be playing in Chch again until a new stadium is built. For that $500m. is required.


It’s also a place to see remarkable engineering. Look at the steel in this pier (at left). The rod is as thick as your arm. And, as it happens, that might be one of the Filipino workers.

IMG_1865This is a bit hard to see but instead of adhering to standard contemporary versions of post and lintel construction using heavy materials like reinforced concrete these buildings are being built on steel frames, webbed or holed for lightness, designed to flex laterally to absorb shaking motions. It’s all so clever. Clever, but slow.

It looks like street art.


Above is the back of our ostensible destination, the Isaac Theatre Royal reopened, a real quality restoration job, for a performance of Madama Butterfly, the first return of opera to Chch.IMG_1824










It looks like some places got off lightly. As Myrna said of the Victorian terraces of New Regent St, a street surrounded by air, they seem to be pretending that nothing has happened.IMG_1820IMG_1838And one of your very best coffee shops somehow survived largely unscathed. The management takes splendid potshots at the Minister for Canterbury Earthquake Recovery. As it happens the cafe is next to the corgis and as well as in very funny print, its sentiments are expressed on the seat Gill was sitting on.IMG_1908•• •• •• ••

How could the reconstruction have been uncontroversial? 
The recovery effort required was and is massive, both in the initial emergency but also afterwards. ‘The earthquakes’, says The Press, Christchurch’s major newspaper, ‘released a surge of community feeling and creative optimism. Christchurch was going to rebuild itself as a liveable, sustainable, adventurous, 21st century city.’

And that hasn’t happened. Yet at least. For a time united by the tragedy and its scale, the City Council and the national government have more recently been at loggerheads. Inevitably. Restoration has been slow. Insurers haven’t been as forthcoming as they might. Legal wrangling over complex property arrangements has slowed things down, along with what is claimed, as always, to be excessive bureaucratic oversight and interference. Heritage issues emerge regularly.

And no one has forgotten. In the first edition of The Press I read on this visit there were earthquake stories on 7 of the first 10 pages. Everyone we spoke to had a story. Of course they would have. 

But what has happened in those four and half years is that the locus of the city has shifted. The shopping action is in Riccarton, a suburb in the west which was considerably less affected than than the centre or the east. South of the city between Brougham St and Moorhouse Avenue now looks like the entry strip to a minor American state capital: tilt block, garish, fast food, fast furniture, fast tiles and hardware, fast garden stuff and fast anything else you might want to buy. It’s not so English any more. 

IMG_2006There’s a message here about good intentions and rational process. When you’re trying to normalise your life, the sustainable, adventurous, 21st century city will be made to wait. It will get trampled in the rush to stop the wall wobbling, to get water coming through the pipes, and to be able to buy a pizza more or less at will. But I hope something more is left of these splendid aspirations than a whopping big new convention centre. 

And this might just be me, but I would try to steer clear of Innovative Premises in the Innovation Precinct. That’s not New Zealand-ish. Not remotely.

Meanwhile … recovery, from what? A slip in the Alpine Fault may be close to due. Last time it produced a lateral movement of 8 metres combined with a vertical motion of two metres. This would dwarf the scale of anything that happened in 2011 and make a dreadful mess of probably all the scattered settlement on the west coast. The Hope Fault which runs not far north of Christchurch through Kaikoura shifts on average every 140 years. The last occurrence was in 1888. That’s the quake that shook the top off the spire.

So the other message has to be about our idea of permanence and its complement, the tractability of nature. As Joe Bennett writes in the preface to The Press‘s excellent book on the subject, ‘The quake brought Christchurch face to face with a harsh and simple truth: we live on the cooling crust of a molten planet and it is utterly indifferent to our well being. We are, in short, like ticks on a rhino.’

And that view, my friends, can be relied on. Solid as rock.IMG_1839

•• •• •• ••

And now for something more cheerful, a short love letter to NZ.

One thought on “Christchurch and its earthquakes

  1. Pingback: 45 degrees South, 2022 | mcraeblog

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